Notes from Russia

The way Russia covered and absorbed the April 14 protests and Boris Yeltsin's death is indicative of Russia’s current political climate.

Framing my recent research trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg were two major political events: I arrived in Moscow on the day of opposition protests (April 14) and left Russia on the day after the death of former-President Boris Yeltsin. The way Russia covered and absorbed these events is indicative of Russia's current political climate.

The protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg were small in scale and had limited impact inside Russia. However, two points are important: first, the government was broadly seen as having overreacted even to these limited protests; and second, domestically, the protests were mostly portrayed as instigated and financed by foreign powers, primarily the United States. Casual anti-American rhetoric is common on Russian television; suspicion of Western motives and actions appears to run deep. Even though most Russians do not see the protests as consequential (if they know about them at all), the government continues to expend considerable effort to contain and squash them. It is generally recognized within Russia, however, that the leaders of the democratic opposition offer neither strong charismatic leadership nor a clear or detailed program of action and policy, and thus do not represent a plausible political alternative to the Putin Administration's political and economic vision. Moreover, the Putin Administration continues to be extremely popular, with Putin's job approval rating hovering around 80 percent, and with broad support from the population and the elite.

On April 14, although there was a very significant military and police presence in some central Moscow areas, most notably around Pushkinskaya Square, there was no sign of protests by mid-afternoon and of most security forces by mid-evening. Coverage on largely-state-controlled or state-loyal television has been limited and frequently caustic; it also implied that there were strong connections between the liberal protesters and some "forces over there." Even though some of the protests were by the members of the democratic opposition, there were also demonstrations by various nationalist and other opposition groups not allied with the Kasparov/Kasyanov camp. The city of Moscow continued to function relatively smoothly. In several conversations with members of Moscow's new business elite-up-and-coming young executives at key Western and Russian firms-it turned out that they had no idea any kind of protest was taking place at all; some of them learned about it by getting stuck in unexpected traffic jams, a fixture of life in the Russian capital. When learning about it, they were dismissive. These and other conversations demonstrated that a wide variety of Muscovites did not know, and certainly did not care, about a few thousand protesters, even if they did not see the need for massive police presence in the streets.

Most of Russia, including its business and professional classes, prefer for the moment to ignore politics and focus on the economy-survival for the poor, making money for the middle and upper classes.

In a counterpoint to the protests, the death of Boris Yeltsin on April 23 stirred much positive rhetoric; however, it also failed to ignite passions or lead to much reminiscence, let alone re-evaluation, of the recent past. Yeltsin's was the first death of a Russian national leader since the passing of CPSU Secretary-General Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, which brought to power Mikhail Gorbachev. It is also the first death of a post-Soviet Russian president. As such, it was in many ways precedent-setting.

Coverage on Russian TV was not extensive; on Monday night, it took awhile for the main channels to prepare tributes, which were running late (the main one being on Rossiya channel). Even though many policies of President Vladimir Putin have been motivated by the desire to reverse the legacy of the Yeltsin years, the coverage of Yeltsin and his tenure in office was positive, with many contentious areas (such as emergence of oligarchs or military action in Chechnya) largely avoided. Obituaries and rhetoric stressed in particular Yeltsin's role in the destruction of the Soviet Union (portrayed as moribund), the avoidance of real risks of hunger and civil war in the early 1990s, and the reelection campaign of 1996, which denied Communists the presidency. Consideration of Yeltsin's role brought to TV screens the reformers in the early 1990s, frequently vilified in today's daily political discourse, but on this occasion praised through association with Yeltsin for building a market, introducing private property and making Russia "free and democratic." As such, the death of Yeltsin linked the Putin administration with that of his predecessor's in explicit and generally positive terms, an important recognition for Yeltsin and a significant legacy-building step for Putin prior to his departure from office.

It is a symbolic coincidence that the great Mstislav Rostropovich died during the same week as Yeltsin. They are two faces of elite rebellion against the Soviet Union-a reformist apparatchik and a dissident artist. Both were beneficiaries of a system they realized, at different times, to be corrupt and unworkable, and escaped in their own ways. Both were deeply populist figures-and both were skillful operators of political and social systems in which they found themselves. Their actions in August 1991 are among the most powerful gestures of that turbulent and revolutionary-Yeltsin on a tank, Rostropovich playing his cello next to the White House.